WILMINGTON — Last Saturday, City Club of Wilmington — a private club located in the de Rosset House on 2nd Street in downtown — announced the sudden passing of its general manager, Greg Matheson.
The announcement sent shockwaves through Wilmington’s hospitality industry. Memorial tributes and posts filled social-media feeds from people who worked with Matheson, musicians that revered him, organizations that valued him, as well as friends, family and customers he interacted with, all sharing memories and pictures of Matheson’s impact.
A gathering to celebrate his life will take place Saturday, Mar. 27, at the corner of Brunswick and 4th streets. It will be a pig pickin’ and oyster roast, featuring a lineup of musicians, including Jesse Stockton, Travis Shallow, Zach Hanner, Randy McQuay, Sean Thomas Gerard, L Shape Lot and Brett Johnson — all Matheson’s friends — who will play from noon to 5:30 p.m.
For more than two decades, Matheson was considered a stalwart in the Port City hospitality industry. City Club owner Jonathan Weiss called him “the godfather of the downtown bar scene,” as Matheson worked in spots along the cobblestone-lined streets, from Percy’s Jazz Club to Duck & Dive, Tails Piano Bar to Goat and Compass.
Weiss said Matheson also was “the face of the City Club.” His tenure began the day it opened on July 4, 1997. Weiss and David Topping took over ownership of the club in 2007; at the time, Matheson was a part-time bartender. Over the years, Weiss promoted him: first to bar manager and again last year to general manager.
“He worked hard,” Weiss said on Friday. “He wasn’t one of those prima donna managers who would tell you to go bus the table if he wasn’t trying to beat you there.”
In effect, Matheson’s refined work ethic attracted great staff. Weiss said he was bringing in a therapist to talk to City Club employees to help process the untimely death of a respected coworker but mainly their dear friend.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Weiss said. “Greg was one-of-a-kind.”
Fred Flynn agrees. Flynn and Matheson struck up a friendship after working together when Duck & Dive opened in 2009.
“The biggest thing he did for me was called on me to always better myself,” Flynn said. “He was my mentor.”
Matheson told Life in Brunswick County in 2017, the trick to being a great bartender is to “keep it simple stupid — don’t overdo it.”
His friends and family noted Matheson’s uncanny ability to connect with customers as a driving factor in his hospitality leadership. “If customers just looked at him and saw him smile, they were hooked,” Flynn said. “Honestly, he had an aura around him showing greatness.”
Flynn said Matheson was always two steps ahead in the industry game. He fundamentally and organically could tap into customers’ needs before they even realized what they wanted.
“He always knew the right things to say; he always knew what you were looking for,” Flynn said.
Flynn said Matheson’s pristine palate for concocting fresh spirits often had them discussing trade secrets, new products and specialty syrups. The latter of which Matheson was well-known for making — strawberry-basil, sage-lemon-hibiscus, mint-sage — even for other bars programs in town.
“Greg always told me early on at the Duck & Dive: ‘You’re better than pouring shots and beers,'” Flynn recalled. “You always do farmers-market cocktails on Saturdays, using all these fresh ingredients. You have talent — follow that.”
Flynn heeded his advice a few years ago and took over as head mixologist at manna.
“I watched Greg do so many great things that have inspired me,” Flynn said. “He will continue to inspire me.”
Weiss said because Matheson seemed to have a little bit of knowledge about everything, from historical facts to music to football, he could file away the smallest details of a customer’s likes and interests — after meeting them only once — and recall it easily later.
“He memorized everyone’s drink (beer, wine), their favorite band, and favorite sports teams,” Matheson’s wife Courtney wrote in an email to Port City Daily.
Courtney met her husband more than a decade ago after consistently running into him at local watering holes: the now-defunct Charley Brownz, Lula’s, Barbary Coast, and Orton’s. They both connected by working in the industry — Courtney’s a personal chef — and were married in 2012.
“As a husband, he was my biggest fan!” Courtney said.
She pointed to his support when it came time to open her business.
“He always talked up my business, kept my business cards in his car and in his office, to hand out to people who were interested in hiring a private chef,” Courtney explained. “He always helped me with wine pairings and cocktail concoctions that my clients would request.”
When the Mathesons had their son, Hendrix, an even deeper foundation of love grew and branched out into the community. Annually, they threw fundraisers to help defray costs for their son’s type 1 diabetes. Hundreds of people would turn out to the Goat and Compass and rally around them.
“Greg loved Hendrix with every piece of his being,” Courtney said. “He enjoyed going to the beach and bringing Hendrix to local historic sites.”
“He always introduced himself as ‘Courtney’s husband and Hendrix’s dad,’” local blues musician Randy McQuay said.
McQuay and Matheson met and became as tight as brothers during the early days of Duck & Dive. McQuay said he played acoustic sets nightly while Matheson was bartending.
“Greg saw me perform more times than any person on earth,” McQuay said. “We worked over 10 years — 500 nights — together at Duck & Dive alone.”
McQuay said he leaned on and valued Matheson’s ear often. He would tap his friend’s input whenever working on new music.
“He just loved to deeply listen to music, to talk about it, and to share it with others,” McQuay said. “He was an integral part of the music scene in Wilmington. He encouraged myself and many other young musicians to go to Cape Fear Blues Jams at the Rusty Nail. He always pushed us to create.”
McQuay even played the Mathesons’ wedding — specifically, “their song, ‘Into the Mystic.’” Eventually, Matheson served as one of McQuay’s groomsmen.
Weddings played a big role of Matheson’s life outside of his own and those of his close friends. He was an ordained minister and performed many ceremonies throughout the years, including for WWAY anchor Randy Aldridge, who threw a surprise wedding for guests in 2016.
“We knew someone as full of love as Greg would make sure our day was special,” Aldridge said. “He handled every detail, and it is still the most special day of our lives.”
McQuay said he will always be affected by Matheson’s trademark of “loving with every ounce of his being.” Though Matheson would work 60 hours a week, friends and family said he always made time for them.
“Greg got more out of a day than anyone I’ve ever met,” McQuay added. “In 53 years, I’m sure that he saw the sun rise more than someone who lived to be 103. Many times, [he was] sharing it with his wife and son.”
Weiss is setting up a trust fund for Matheson’s son through a GoFundMe page, in an effort to help Hendrix’s needs with type 1 diabetes. As of press, it was only a few thousand dollars away from its $50,000 goal. It’s the minimum that Weiss said he could do to honor someone who gave so much.
“Greg was the most unselfish person I ever met,” McQuay said. “He left us early, but his time here was well-spent. Thinking, doing, giving — leading and teaching others by example.”
At Saturday’s memorial, held in the lot beside Goat and Compass, a box will be set up for folks to drop a story, photo or favorite song lyric for Hendrix to refer to when thinking of his dad.
Tips or comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org